The image of Kansas wasn’t negative,” the state director of travel and tourism told the New York Times in 2005, reporting on a national survey, “it was blank.” Well, not entirely: Kansas made national news at the time as it arrested the BTK killer in Wichita, as Steve Fossett took off from Salina in his glider-like Global Flyer and flew nonstop around the world, as the state attorney general sought abortion clinic records to investigate illegal abortions and sex offenses against minors. Those stories suggested that Thomas Frank, author of the bestselling What’s the Matter with Kansas?, had a better point when he says, “Kansas may be the land of averageness, but it is a freaky, militant, outraged averageness.” For the history of seemingly placid Kansas—it actually is flatter than a pancake, geographers announced in 2004 after comparing its geography to an IHOP product—has been punctuated by uprisings, intellectual and violent, by moments of anger and rage sweeping through the tall sheaves like a tornado wind. Kansas literally began in a moment of violence, the Bleeding Kansas of the 1850s that led proximately to the terrible war that split the whole nation. The trigger was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which left to local settlers the question of whether this new Kansas Territory would be a free or slave state. Pro-slavery “bushwhackers” rode over the line from Missouri, stealing elections and writing a pro-slavery constitution. But much larger numbers of free-soil “jayhawkers” from New England and the New England-Yankee-settled Great Lakes states put down roots and, despite the massacres of the mad John Brown, prevailed and established their own law and order. This was a civil war before the Civil War and, as Wichita State historian Charles Miner points out, one conducted by literate people who produced mountains of documents that have not been fully mined by historians.
Kansas’s effect on national politics was tumultuous: The Democratic Party was split, the Republican Party was created, and the nation was plunged into Civil War. The ultimate effect on Kansas was calming: The anti-slavery majority bent the soil to the plow and built small towns thick with schools, churches and colleges, to the point that in the 1939 color movie, The Wizard of Oz, the Kansas scenes were shot in dreary black and white as the image of dull, prim, old-fashioned Middle America, while the scenes in imaginary Oz were shot in brilliant color. But the rebellious impulse did not totally die out. Kansans’ livelihoods were always at risk: Hailstorms, grasshopper invasions, dry seasons or a drop in world farm prices could mean disaster for thousands. The high-rainfall 1880s attracted hundreds of thousands of new settlers to Kansas; the low-rainfall 1890s produced a bust and a populist rebellion. “What you farmers should do,” said orator Mary Ellen Lease, “is to raise less corn and more hell.” For a few years in the 1890s, and then in farm rebellions of the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, Kansans did, but afterwards always returned to jayhawker Republicanism.
Kansas remains mostly Republican in the 21st century, but not in quite the same old way. Its most famous politician, Bob Dole, still returns occasionally to his small hometown of Russell, out on the plains. But Kansas’ population is increasingly metropolitan. Some 52% of Kansans live in just five counties, which include Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka and Wichita, and in 84 of the 100 other counties the population declined between 2000 and 2006. A majority of Kansans are in or within easy reach of metropolitan Kansas City, which has a diverse economy that is by no means dependent on farming. Small towns on the plains see their city halls and post offices padlocked and high schools closed because of low attendance; some towns have bought land to be distributed free to homesteaders, others have courted call centers. The state promotes agri-tourism at buffalo ranches and the wild Tallgrass Prairie. But at the same time new office complexes and corporate headquarters are rising amidst the affluent suburbs of Johnson County, which has one of the highest job growth rates in the country. The smaller metropolitan area of Wichita, while less diversified, has an economy built on its role as the world’s leading producer of small airplanes: Here many World War II planes were built and here today Cessna, Bombardier, Raytheon and other manufacturers make more than half the general aviation aircraft in the world. Hispanics are flocking to work in meatpacking factories in towns like Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal, whose populations in 2000 were more than 40% Hispanic and which had pro-immigration marches in April 2006. Hispanics accounted for nearly half of Kansas’s population growth in the 1990s, and 8% of its population in 2005. There is no warrant today for shooting the Kansas scenes in black and white.
This transformation has had political consequences. Some 40% of Kansas’s votes in 2004 were cast in the mostly suburban counties from Kansas City west to Topeka, and another 15% in Wichita’s Sedgwick County. If rural Kansas once produced farm rebellions, these urban and suburban Kansans have produced their own kind of rebellion. Since the mid-1990s Kansas has had a kind of three-party politics—conservative Republicans versus moderate Republicans versus Democrats. Republican Governor Bill Graves, elected in 1994 and 1998, favored abortion rights and gun control; he was fiercely opposed by conservative Republicans in the legislature. Graves beat back a conservative challenge in the 1998 Republican primary by nearly 3–1, but conservatives won a majority on the state school board and in 1999 issued guidelines that treated evolution as a theory. That aroused a national uproar and was reversed in 2001, and in 2003 moderate Republicans took leadership posts in the legislature. The Republican split opened the way for Democrats, who captured the 3d Congressional District seat in 1998 by beating a conservative who was hated by suburban moderates and the governorship in 2002 when Democrat Kathleen Sebelius beat conservative Treasurer Tim Shallenburger. Conservatives won victories in the August 2004 legislative primaries and gained a 6–4 majority over moderate Republicans and Democrats on the state school board, which voted to teach non-religious alternatives to Darwinian theory, founded, its leader said, on “good science that’s empirically based.” But that aroused opposition in the 2006 primaries. So did a bill, vetoed by Sebelius, for stricter regulation of abortion clinics, an unsuccessful legislative move to ban state-funded embryonic stem cell research and Attorney General Phill Kline’s move to see abortion clinic records. Sebelius recruited former Republican state chairman Mark Parkinson to be her running mate and won 58%-40%. Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison switched to the Democratic party, ran against Kline and beat him 59%-41%. Conservatives lost their majority on the State Board of Education in the August Republican primaries. Republican Congressman Jim Ryun was upset by Democrat Nancy Boyda in November. The conservatives had some successes; they got a ban on same-sex marriage on the ballot in April 2005, which passed easily. But the balance went against them. “These are people who felt banished," Sebelius told the Washington Post. " We have some remarkable conversions. My favorite kind of revival is going to a place where someone says, ‘I’ve been a Republican all my life, and I’ve seen the light.’”
Frank’s book argued that Kansas voters have been hornswoggled into voting against their economic interests by big business operatives. That’s not an accurate picture. His hometown, which he cites as evidence of economic decline, is in booming Johnson County, and Kansas’s unemployment rate has been well below the national average. And lots of other voters—liberal Frank fans on the Upper East Side of New York, for example—vote against their short-term economic interests because cultural issues are more important to them. The switch toward the moderate Republicans and the Democrats in 2006 came not in the drought-stricken farm counties in southern and western Kansas, which are sustained by subsidized crop insurance and federal disaster payments, but in the economically vital metropolitan areas of Kansas, where the key swing voters were motivated, as Kansas’s conservative Republican voters have been, by cultural issues. And where the balance seems to have shifted, as it has several times in Kansas in the last decade, by the perceived excesses of the side in power.
Democrats now hold two of Kansas’s four U.S. House seats, but otherwise the state seems solidly Republican in national politics. It voted 58%-37% for George W. Bush in 2000 and 62%-37% in 2004. Its two Republican senators were both first elected in 1996, when Bob Dole resigned and Nancy Landon Kassebaum retired. Kansas has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932—the only state that hasn’t.